A Queer History of California’s Medical Marijuana Movement
Before you spark up, take a second to remember the groups of marginalized people who made legal weed possible.
Published on May 2, 2019

We’ve come a long way since the ‘90s, when California passed Proposition 215: the nation’s first statewide medical marijuana law. But as CBD becomes available in every corner store, canna-stocks take over Wall Street, and questions about weed spring up on Jeopardy, it’s easy to forget how and why the cannabis movement initially began. 

Remember, it took off during the AIDS crisis.

The story begins in California, where Dennis Peron, a gay man dubbed the “father of medical cannabis,” saw many of his friends die from AIDS. The epidemic wiped out thousands, and cannabis was among the few remedies that provided the suffering some relief. But the drug laws of the time showed no mercy. If an AIDS patient was caught using weed by law enforcement, the patient was arrested and put in jail — where the level of suffering increased.

The unjust fuckery inspired Peron to lead one of California’s most successful advocacy movements to date: the reform of state cannabis laws. Although his activism is legendary, he was just one man, a core piece to a much larger, intricate puzzle of people who are all equally responsible for the success of the cannabis reform revolution. Most stories detailing the movement’s historical developments focus solely on Peron and the passing of his late partner, Jonathan West, in 1990. But in reality, it took a village of people — from every race, gender, socioeconomic and health status — to catalyze the change. 

What follows is a history of California’s — and ultimately the nation’s — medical cannabis movement through the lenses of some of Peron’s closest confidantes and protégés, who together composed an army of LGBT activists and their straight allies.

Reagan and the ‘Gay Plague’

In 1981, scientists first identified a new disease that seemed to only afflict gay men. Originally called “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency,” or GRID, doctors initially had no idea what caused it.

In 1983, Larry Kramer, a screenwriter, novelist, and founder of the AIDS activist organization Gay Men’s Health Crisis, appeared on NBC’s Today Show. He asked the show’s host, Jane Pauley, “Can you imagine what it must be like if you had lost 20 of your friends in the last 18 months?”

“No,” Pauley answered.

By the time Kramer appeared on national TV, over 2,000 Americans had died from AIDS. It would be another two years after Kramer’s Today Show interview before President Reagan even said the word “AIDS” in public.

Randy Robinson
Based in Denver, Randy studied cannabinoid science while getting a degree in molecular biology at the University of Colorado. When not writing about cannabis, science, politics, or LGBT issues, they can be found exploring nature somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Catch Randy on Twitter and Instagram @randieseljay
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